Assessment of terrain elevation estimates from ICESat-2 and GEDI spaceborne LiDAR missions across different land cover and forest types

Mikhail Urbazaev, Laura L. Hess, Steven Hancock, Luciane Yumie Sato, Jean Pierre Ometto, Christian Thiel, Clémence Dubois, Kai Heckel, Marcel Urban, Markus Adam, Christiane Schmullius

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Accurate measurements of terrain elevation are crucial for many ecological applications. In this study, we sought to assess new global three-dimensional Earth observation data acquired by the spaceborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) missions Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) and Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI). For this, we examined the “ATLAS/ICESat-2 L3A Land and Vegetation Height”, version 5 (20 × 14 m and 100 × 14 m segments) and the “GEDI Level 2A Footprint Elevation and Height Metrics”, version 2 (25 m circle). We conducted our analysis across four land cover classes (bare soil, herbaceous, forest, savanna), and six forest types (temperate broad-leaved, temperate needle-leaved, temperate mixed, tropical upland, tropical floodplain, and tropical secondary forest). For assessment of terrain elevation estimates from spaceborne LiDAR data we used high resolution airborne data. Our results indicate that both LiDAR missions provide accurate terrain elevation estimates across different land cover classes and forest types with mean error less than 1 m, except in tropical forests. However, using a GEDI algorithm with a lower signal end threshold (e.g., algorithm 5) can improve the accuracy of terrain elevation estimates for tropical upland forests. Specific environmental parameters (terrain slope, canopy height and canopy cover) and sensor parameters (GEDI degrade flags, terrain estimation algorithm; ICESat-2 number of terrain photons, terrain uncertainty) can be applied to improve the accuracy of ICESat-2 and GEDI-based terrain estimates. Although the goodness-of-fit statistics from the two spaceborne LiDARs are not directly comparable since they possess different footprint sizes (100 × 14 m segment or 20 × 14 m segment vs. 25 m circle), we observed similar trends on the impact of terrain slope, canopy cover and canopy height for both sensors. Terrain slope strongly impacts the accuracy of both ICESat-2 and GEDI terrain elevation estimates for both forested and non-forested areas. In the case of GEDI the impact of slope is, however, partly caused by horizontal geolocation error. Moreover, dense canopies (i.e., canopy cover higher than 90%) affect the accuracy of spaceborne LiDAR terrain estimates, while canopy height does not, when considering samples over flat terrains. Our analysis of the accuracy and precision of current versions of spaceborne LiDAR products for different vegetation types and environmental conditions provides insights on parameter selection and estimated uncertainty to inform users of these key global datasets.
Original languageEnglish
Article number100067
JournalScience of Remote Sensing
Early online date5 Sep 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2022


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